'Livin' the Dream'
The man stood incongruously in the middle of the action at driver introductions for the Sprint All-Star Race, dressed casually in a vintage Bill Elliott T-shirt and denim jeans.
Next to him stood someone who could only be his brother, by the looks of it, dressed about the same. A small, soft cooler was slung from the second man's shoulder, dripping water from the melting ice wrapped around the beer cans inside.
These were two simple, normal guys living the dream -- getting an inside look at the inner workings of NASCAR during a star-studded night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. As drivers shuffled by, the two men asked most for autographs and usually the drivers politely complied. Even then, the two were frequent victims of piercing second looks, as if many NASCAR insiders simply could not figure out what they were doing there so close to their inner sanctum. The looks spoke volumes: did these two really belong here?
"Some people brushed them off and probably shouldn't have," noted Hermie Sadler, a NASCAR driver and television analyst of some note who not only knew the story behind the men but had befriended them, particularly the one in the Bill Elliott T-shirt.
That would be Joe Denette, multi-millionaire and winner of a $75.6 million jackpot in the Mega Millions lottery game. Denette also is a lifelong NASCAR fan who since has gone on to form Joe Denette Motorsports, which fields the No. 23 Chevrolet team of driver Jason White in the Camping World Truck Series.
Denette's rags-to-riches story is a remarkable one and closely involves the second man, who indeed was his brother Fred in that May of 2009 scenario in Charlotte. And it all centers around NASCAR. With Joe Denette, for much of his life, it always has.
Hitting it big
Denette was born in Woodbridge, Va., but has spent most of his 48 years of life living and working in and around Fredricksburg, Va. He and Fred, along with another brother and a sister, were raised by a single mother, Inge Denette, who did what she could to make sure their basic needs were met.
Joe Denette was good with his hands and eventually found a job fixing up houses for a builder in northern Virginia. Life was simple, but fine. He always had NASCAR to serve as a welcome diversion to the everyday grind, and looked forward eagerly to the start of each season. He also began collecting die-cast cars and other memorabilia, and soon built a small shrine dedicated to the sport in the basement of his home -- complete with a black-and-white, checkered tile floor.
Then the housing boom went bust. Like so many other Americans, Joe Denette found himself caught up in it. He was laid off from his job.
"Around this time of year in 2009 I was unemployed and basically waiting for the race season to start, because that was always something I looked forward to," Denette said. "I would sit there and work side jobs, work on houses for people, just enough to make ends meet."
His hard luck was about to change. In April of 2009, Denette called a local radio station in Virginia that was running a promotion to give away four tickets to the upcoming race at Richmond International Raceway. He got through, and all he had to do was answer a simple trivia question.
"Who was the first Nextel Cup champion in NASCAR?" the radio host wanted to know.
"Well," said Denette, "technically that would be Kurt Busch in 2004. Every other one before that was a Winston Cup champion."
Denette proceeded to get into a heated argument not only with the host of the show but with everyone in the radio studio who challenged him. Red Byron, he carefully explained, was technically the first "Winston Cup" champion in NASCAR history. Busch was the first Nextel Cup champion, which preceded the current era of Sprint Cup sponsorship in NASCAR's top series.
"Hey, the way the question was worded, I got it right," Joe said.
Eventually, the radio station agreed with Denette. He had his tickets to the race. The first thing he did after that was call his brother, Fred, who lives in Bristol, Tenn., and shares his passion for NASCAR. He told Fred the good news and offered to fly Fred in for the race.
"Sure, why not?" Fred responded.
Winning the race tickets was nice, but Joe Denette was just getting warmed up. On his way to the Richmond airport to pick up his younger brother, Joe Denette participated in another one of his passionate hobbies. He bought 23 Mega Millions lottery tickets, picking three sets of numbers himself and letting the computer determine his fate on the rest.
Then he picked Fred up and they went over to their mother's house where "we did our normal thing" and basically just hung out that Friday night. The next morning, Fred was in the bathroom when he heard Joe and his mother carrying on in another room of the house.
"I hear him and my mother out there cackling, going wild," Fred said.
Soon they were yelling to him. "Get out here! Get out here!"
Once Fred did, a grinning Joe directed him to a chair in front of a home computer.
"You need to sit down. You need to look at the computer screen," Joe told him.
On it, the winning numbers of the previous night's lottery drawing were displayed. They matched the numbers on the ticket Joe thrust into Fred's hand.
"I just hit Mega Millions for $75.6 million!" Joe exclaimed. "You don't have to work no more. I'm gonna give you a million dollars right off the top."
Fred sat for a moment in stunned silence.
"I was like, 'Oh my God!' And I looked at him and Mom and they just had wide, ear-to-ear grins," said Fred, who quickly matched them in the grins department.
"I said to Joe, 'What are we going to do?' He said, 'We're going to go to the race.' He signed the ticket, gave it to my mother to hide. Then we went and picked up a couple friends and drove to the race, just like we had planned all along."
Along comes Hermie
Like any good fans, Joe and Fred Denette proceeded to tailgate as usual prior to the running of the Crown Royal presents the Russ Friedman 400 -- a race, appropriately enough, named for a fan who won a contest to earn that honor. But as they downed food and drink, and Joe told friends of his amazing and sudden good fortune, a common theme quickly emerged.
"When you tell anybody -- unless you can sit there and actually prove it to them by showing them the ticket and the winning numbers.-- nobody believes you. They're all like, 'Yeah, right. Man, you're full of crap,' " Joe said.
"I was having a blast, having a great time -- knowing that after the race was done, after the tailgating was done, come Monday morning I'll never have to worry about working again. I can do whatever I want to do. ... I was drinking tequila that day -- and I did not feel it the whole day. It had to be because of the adrenaline."
In the back of his fogged mind, and soon to come to the forefront once his head cleared, was the idea that one of those things he wanted to do was own a NASCAR race team. Come the following Monday morning, when the lottery office opened, Joe Denette's life and the lives of many of those closest to him were about to change.
"It was totally unbelievable," Fred said. "It just all changed. Everything."
Taking into account the story of how Joe had purchased his winning ticket and what he had done to celebrate, Virginia state lottery officials decided to ask the official check presentation ceremony to be held at Richmond International Raceway. Hermie Sadler had a personal services contract with RIR at the time and was asked to do the honors, along with providing a few pace-car laps for the honored guest.
Sadler and Joe Denette hit it off right away. Even before they took their pace-car laps and exchanged phone numbers, Joe motioned for Sadler to follow him to his parked car, an old 1995 Ford Mustang that was soon to be replaced.
"Hey, come here. I want to show you something," Joe told Hermie.
Then Denette popped open the trunk. Sadler's eyes bulged.
"He opened up the back of that Mustang and he had a whole bunch of my old Virginia Is For Lovers cars and my old DeWalt cars and all kinds of die-casts from way back," Sadler said. "He said he collected stuff from all Virginia drivers, and he wanted me to sign a bunch of it. So we just kind of hit it off."
Still, that might have been the end of a nice story -- if not for what Denette did next, setting in motion a series of good deeds the two men were about to do for each other.
"I carried him for rides in the pace car and handed him his check in Victory Lane, and we said we'd keep in touch. But I didn't know if I'd ever hear from him again," Sadler said. "Then a couple weeks later he called me up and asked me to meet him at a truck stop in Emporia [Va.]. He came through Emporia and we met up at the truck stop."
Denette seemed more serious than the last time they saw each other. And he obviously had done some homework on Sadler, whose 12-year-old daughter Halie suffers from autism. Sadler and his brother -- former Sprint Cup driver and current Nationwide Series driver Elliott Sadler -- formed the Hermie and Elliott Sadler Charitable Foundation in March of 2000. The foundation is dedicated to raising autism awareness and promoting research for a cure.
"Hey, I want to help your foundation," Denette told Hermie.
With that, Denette produced a check for $250,000 that he promptly handed over to Sadler.
"He came and brought me a check for $250,000 for my foundation out of the blue," said Sadler, still shaking his head at the thought of the pleasant surprise nearly two years later. The money is being used to help develop a child-services center in Emporia for kids with autism.
It is worth noting that Denette never mentions the donation, or volunteers information about others he has made to charities or individuals. It's only when others start telling stories that the word gets out about his good works.
Shortly thereafter, looking to repay Denette in some small way, Sadler offered to take him and his brother and one of their friends to Charlotte for a behind-the-scenes look at the All-Star Race. Once there, Joe Denette got to meet his long-time racing hero, Bill Elliott, and hang out near the infield stage for those driver introductions.
It was a side of the sport he had only observed from afar. But it was only a taste. Denette wanted more.
From fan to team owner
Along the way, Denette asked Sadler if he had an interest in possibly driving a truck sponsored by him and the Virginia state lottery in an upcoming race at Bristol. Sadler agreed, and drove in several more races for a Denette-sponsored truck during the 2010 season.
Still, Denette wanted even more. He wanted to own a Camping World Truck Series team that would run a full 25-race schedule and compete for the series championship. He asked Sadler how to go about pursuing his dream.
"I asked him, 'Hey, what would it take to start a team?' He came up with a number," Denette said. "My side was easy. All I had to do was sign some papers and come up with the finances. Hermie did all the work. He put everything together."
Sadler's side wasn't so easy. Sadler did not want to see Denette invest too much of his own new-found money in a shaky enterprise. Knowing it would take roughly $3.5 million to get a new team started and funded for an entire year, assuming they wanted to be competitive right away, he went to see Kevin Harvick, Sprint Cup driver and owner of teams in both the Camping World and Nationwide Series through Kevin Harvick, Inc.
"I wanted him getting involved with the right people and doing it the right way, and not get taken advantage of," Sadler said. "I just sat down with him and said, 'If you're going to do this, this is the way we need to do it.'
Sadler cut a deal with Harvick and KHI to build the trucks for what soon came to be known as Joe Denette Motorsports. Then Sadler struck an arrangement to have respected engine builder Mark Smith provide engines through his company, Pro Motor Engines.
As for the driving side of it, Sadler was in the process of piecing together what he thought might still be a part-time schedule of roughly 15-18 races the first season, simply to help Denette "get his feet wet." He was planning to drive some of the races, along with his brother Elliott and Sprint Cup driver Jamie McMurray. Then Sadler's phone rang. It was Harvick on the other end.
"We've been talking to [driver] Jason White and the GunBroker.com people, and we think you guys would be the perfect fit with what y'all are trying to do," Harvick said.
White, 10th in the series points in 2010 while driving trucks from all four manufacturers at least once during the season, was willing to come on board if Denette could commit to running the full season. Oh, and also only if Denette was willing to take on the GunBroker.com sponsorship that came with White.
That sponsorship cut Denette's out-of-pocket commitment for 2011 "roughly in half," according to Sadler. He and Denette couldn't say yes to the proposal fast enough.
Meeting recently with White in the team hauler, the driver brimmed with optimism about his new owner and the upcoming season. And why not? It seems perhaps he and Denette were made for each other. White even likened being paired with Denette to hitting the lottery himself.
Shortly after cutting the deal to have White drive for him, Denette took White to dinner.
"Joe, how many lottery tickets did you buy when you won?" White asked.
"I bought 23 tickets," Denette replied. "I picked three sets of numbers and did $20 worth of the easy picks, and I won on one of the easy picks."
White raised one of his bushy, dark eyebrows. "Well, that's pretty cool. You know we're No. 23, right?"
Sure enough, White ran the No. 23 truck sponsored by GunBroker.com the previous two years. But no, Denette had no idea at the time.
"It's good karma. We had a deal done before we even knew that," White said.
They laughed over the "coincidence" and continued on with dinner. Sometime later, Denette made a confession.
"I still play the lottery every week," he told White.
"Well, how many tickets did you buy this time?" White asked.
"I bought a hundred dollars' worth," Denette replied.
White shook his head and offered the multi-millionaire a sound piece of advice. "Well, Joe, you need to start buying twenty-three dollars' worth again -- because that's your number.' "
Indeed, it is. Now it's their number. White ran well in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway last Friday before being caught up in an accident not of his doing on Lap 75 of the 100-lap season-opening event. White, who once dueled favorably with Denny Hamlin when both embarked on their racing careers as young boys in Virginia, said he likes his chances this season.
"Here's the thing: we basically have the same team intact that we had last year, when we finished 10th in points -- and we had six blown engines," White said. "We had a pole at Daytona, our best finish was fourth a couple of times. We had a really good team. This year, if we can take the engines out of the equation, I really feel like we can run top-five, and we hope to get a win or two. Because it is a new start-up team, with a lot of new pieces, it may take a little time. But the alliance with KHI, I think that's only going to make us stronger and let us compete for wins."
Harvick said he has been impressed with what he's seen so far from the fledgling operation, which he and Sadler agree is more or less a "satellite team" under the always-competive KHI truck umbrella.
"[Denette] became friends with Hermie, and Hermie didn't want to see him kind of get used up. So they came to us and we worked out a program that we felt would work for them, so that they could get their team up and running and be competitive without spending all their money. The GunBroker group and them got together so everybody benefited from the program," Harvick said. "Hopefully it's somebody who can be around the sport for a while. I've seen a lot of people come and go, and you want them to make sure they don't get a bad taste in their mouth right off the bat.
"With the stuff that they've put together, I think it all boils down to is the guys on the team and the driver just putting all the pieces together. But in their first four or five weeks, they've got to actually put all the pieces together with trucks and trailers and get all the things that they need. There's no reason they shouldn't run in the top 10 right off the bat, and contend for wins as they get to the second half of the season."
There clearly is work left to do. As he rose from the couch at the front of the team hauler following a recent interview, White admitted as much. Seconds later, a crew member reached for the door -- only to have the doorknob snap off in his hand.
"We'll get that fixed," White said. "Put it on the list."
The big picture
Asked last weekend if he had met Joe Denette personally, Harvick shook his head no.
"I have not met him yet," said Harvick, smiling. "I know DeLana [Harvick, Kevin's wife and co-owner of KHI] has met him and talked about how normal of a guy he is. It's a great story."
Denette laughed when he was told of Harvick's response.
"Actually, that's not true. I have met him -- but I'm not surprised he doesn't remember. I wouldn't expect him to," Denette said.
It turns out that back around 2004, Denette got word that his hero Bill Elliott and some other top NASCAR drivers would be making an appearance together at a short track -- seven hours away by car, in New Jersey. That did not deter Denette, who got in his old Mustang and drove the seven hours without hesitation. He said he met Harvick there, spoke with him briefly, and got his autograph.
Now they are working to build a competitive NASCAR team together. Denette and his brother, Fred, admit that it is surreal at times on many levels -- like when they were riding together on their way to the track at Daytona last Friday and a homeless person who said he was a Vietnam veteran was panhandling at a traffic light where they had stopped. Joe fished a bill out of his pocket to give to the man, thinking it was worth $20. Even after he saw it was a $100 bill, he simply handed it away out the window without hesitation.
"That guy was riding on one of those carts for the physically handicapped. I looked in the rear-view mirror as we drove away and I think saw him popping wheelies on that thing. I think he was done working for the day," Fred joked.
Or like during the season-opening Truck race at Daytona, when Joe and Fred were spotted atop the No. 23 Chevrolet pit box. Every time White came roaring into the pits, they pulled their cameras out and started snapping pictures as if they wanted to make sure they would carry away personal evidence that this is all real.
Joe Denette said he has heard all the stories, including the one made famous by car owner Felix Sabates years ago in which Sabates said, "You know how to make a small fortune in racing? Start with a large fortune."
When he hit the $75.6 million jackpot, Denette opted for the one-time lump-sum payment. After taxes, he said he was left with roughly $31 million. Even before cashing in the ticket, he hired an investment attorney to help him look after his money, and said he has no intention of coming anywhere close to losing it all in the black hole that can be stock-car racing.
"I'm not looking at it to make millions. I'm looking at it, actually, to win races and to win championships," Denette said. "You look at Cup, and the money is there. Truck racing, there really isn't the money to be made -- but it's more racing, if you ask me."
Of course, he admitted that if he wins races and championships at the truck level, he eventually may look to the more expensive risk vs. reward Cup side.
"I'd love to be able to say I owned a Cup team and won a championship with a Cup team," he said.
"I've heard people making comments on Facebook and stuff, 'Oh, well, he's stupid for doing that. Look at him in two years and he's going to be broke.' When I won the lottery in '09, people said the same thing. They were like, 'Look at him in two years and he'll be broke.' Well, I'm not going to do that -- because then I'd have to go back to work!" he said.
"Since the day I cashed everything in -- two years later, with everything I have -- I'm still worth what I was the day I won. Even in a bad economy."
In addition to buying the race team, he has spent some of the money on various other ventures, frequently for others. He paid off his sister's mortgage, and a nephew's. He gave Fred $1 million "off the top" as promised. He bought three houses in the same neighborhood, but already is planning on selling two of them.
"My mother -- a single mom -- raised me. She raised myself, two brothers and a sister. And we struggled all through life. That makes us appreciate this even more," said Denette, whose wife is expecting their first child any day now.
"Basically, when you win [the lottery], a lot of people buy monstrous houses, all kinds of flashy cars and all that. I still drive a truck. I mean, it's a brand-new one -- but it's still a truck."
It's a Ford F-350, in case you wondered.
"The only other extravagant thing I guess I did was I bought me a Mustang Shelby GT," Denette added. "I bought the one that they showed on TV in 2008 being the fastest car out there. I bought one because I wanted one so bad. That's the first car I've ever owned that I can actually say I respect."
Well, now he owns a truck -- maybe two -- that he can respect as well. And maybe Chevrolet will soon be sending him others so the owner of a Chevy race team doesn't end up with an overabundance of Fords in his home garage. Sadler said Denette is poised to make smart decisions in his new life and with his new race team.
"He's got a good family, and he's taking care of his family," Sadler said. "But other than that, he's a simple guy who loves simple things. He loves NASCAR. A lot of times around the garage we used the phrase, 'Livin' the dream.' Well, he's really livin' the dream and doing something he never thought he would have the opportunity to do."